Initially solo artists, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn began collaborating on work in 1914. At the time, St. Denis was preparing for a tour of the southeastern region of the United States, and needed a male partner to help present new ballroom dances. Shawn, who had admired St. Denis since seeing her perform in 1911, auditioned for and was awarded the role. The resulting tour featured the partnered pieces along with individual works from St. Denis and Shawn respectively.
Eventually, the working relationship between Shawn and St. Denis turned romantic. The two artists fell in love and were married on August 13, 1914. Their "honeymoon" consisted of a second joint tour - accompanied by a small company of dancers - from Saratoga, New York to San Francisco, California. A new collection of dances, including more ballroom variations, St. Denis solos and Shawn's famous Dagger Dance, was showcased. For promotional purposes, the dancing group was referred to as the St. Denis-Shawn Company.
It was not until February 6, 1915, on yet another tour, that the term "Denishawn" actually surfaced. At a performance in Portland, Oregon, a theater manager promised eight box seats to whomever could dream up the most creative name for the latest St. Denis-Shawn ballroom exhibition. The unchallenged, winning title was "The Denishawn Rose Mazurka." While the name as a whole didn't warrant much popularity, the "Denishawn" portion attracted audience members and the press - to such an extent that the namesake couple chose to officially change their company name from the St. Denis-Shawn Company to Denishawn Dancers.
With this new name in tow, Shawn and St. Denis began brainstorming ways to expand their contributions to the dance world. Shawn was the first to suggest opening a school - a dual-purpose institution that could be a successful source of income and in turn pass on the founders' ideas of new Modern dance. St. Denis and Shawn opened their Denishawn School in 1915, and together formulated a guide for both their pedagogy and choreography, an excerpt of which is quoted below:
"The art of dance is too big to be encompassed by any one system. On the contrary, the dance includes all systems or schools of dance. Every way that any human being of any race or nationality, at any period of human history, has moved rhythmically to express himself, belongs to the dance. We endeavor to recognize and use all contributions of the past to the dance and will continue to use all new contributions in the future" (Sherman, Enduring Influence 11).
The first Denishawn School was housed in a Spanish-style mansion on top of a hill in Los Angeles. There were two spaces reserved for technique classes: an indoor studio where St. Denis primarily taught, and an outdoor ballroom for yoga meditations and Shawn's various classes (ballet, ballroom and what would later be called "Denishawn" technique). $500 covered the cost of a 12-week program that included daily technique classes, room and board, arts and crafts and guided reading lessons.
When taking technique classes, students danced in bare feet and wore identical one-piece black wool bathing suits. Classes lasted three hours every morning. Shawn typically taught during the first block of time, leading students through stretches, limbering exercises, ballet barre and floor progressions and free-form center combinations. St. Denis then took over with instruction in Oriental and yoga techniques. Author and former Denishawn pupil Jane Sherman recalls an everyday class, laden with ballet terminology:
"A typical Denishawn class began at the barre; first came stretching, petits and grands battements, a series of plies in the five positions, sixteen measures of grande rondes de jambes, and thirty-two measures of petites rondes de jambes. These might be followed by slow releves in arabesque, fast changes, entrechats, and exercises to prepare for fouettes. In short, the works!
After ballet arm exercises out on the floor, we next worked to perfect our develops en tournant, out attitudes, out renverses, and our grande jetes. The each pupil danced alone a series of pas de basques: the Denishawn version, the ballet, the Spanish, and the Hungarian. The Denishawn pas de basque was distinguished by arms held high and parallel overhead as the body made an extreme arch sideways toward the leading foot.
Next usually came a free, open exercise affectionately nicknamed "arms and body," done to a waltz from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. A forerunner of the technical warmups now used in many modern dance schools, it started with feet placed far apart and pressed flat on the floor. With a slow swinging of the body into ever-increasing circles, came head, shoulder, and torso rolls, the arms sweeping from the floor to the ceiling. After a relaxed run around the circumference of the studio, we ended in a back fall ... we might then sit down to practice Javanese arm movements, do hand stretches to force our Western fingers backward into some semblance of Cambodian flexibility ...
Class always closed with the learning of another part of a dance. Based on the theory that one learns to perform by performing, dance exercises were essential elements in Denishaw training, and some of them were so professionally interesting that they became part of the concert repertory" (Sherman, Enduring Influence 18,19).
One school in Massachusetts has continued to teach Denishawn Dance for over 50 years. The Marion Rice Studio of the Dance, in Fitchburg Massachusetts, educated students and performed Denishawn dances for the local community as well as at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival (1972), Marymount Manhattan College (1978), NY City College "Roots" Festival (1986) and the 2000 Millennium Dance Festival in Washington, DC.
The Denishawn Dancers took advantage of many performance opportunities - in colleges, concert halls, vaudeville theaters, convention centers and outdoor stadiums. Besides being invited to standout performance venues like New York's prestigious Palace Theater (1916), Denishawn was the first American company to present "serious Western dance" in Japan, Burma, China, India, Ceylon, Java, Malaya and the Philippines (1925-26) (Sherman, Enduring Influence 77). In some ways, the presented work was resembled ballet - each piece was a full-company story with elaborate costumes, sets and lighting. In terms of movement, however, the differences were obvious - no pointe shoes, no pas de deux lifts, no exact format for patterning solos and ensemble pieces.
Most Denishawn works fall into one of four categories:
Many Denishawn solo works remain in the active repertoire of many companies. Their solos are of special interest to many for their exotic qualities. Several of their solos were included in "The Art of the Solo" presented at the Baltimore Museum of Art on September 29, 2006. These included three revival premieres, namely, Shawn's "Invocation to the Thunderbird"(1916), last danced by Denishawn dancer John Dougherty and "Death of Adonis" (1922). Both were recreated by Mino Nicolas, programme curator, with the aid of film, written accounts and photographs. Also featured were the revival premiere of Ruth St. Denis' "The Peacock/A Legend of India" (1906) which was recreated using the same methods. Her signature solo, "The Incense" will also be performed by Cynthia Word of Washington DC.
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